Reflections on a Tragic Missionary Story


I’ve been thinking about John Allen Chau a lot lately.

He was the missionary who was recently killed on the shore of a remote island called North Sentinel by a tribe which intentionally remains isolated from modern civilization.

Media coverage has mostly focused on two questions: first, was Chau a courageous martyr or a misguided fool; and second, what is the best way to evangelize anyway; isn’t missionary sending a thing of the past?

I don’t know if I’m really qualified to answer the first question. Obviously, it took courage to travel to North Sentinel; that was bravery, but I also think it was entirely inappropriate. For one, there was a very real danger that Chau would bring communicable diseases to people who had no natural resistance to them. Furthermore, he didn’t know their language, so he had no quick way to let them know why he was there. And they didn’t invite him to their island!

I seem to recall that just a few weeks ago, I led my Sunday School class through a lesson that included a quote from Jesus in which he clearly said to his disciples, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town” (Matthew 10:14). Apparently, even Jesus thought it was a waste of time to go where you were not wanted!

In all seriousness, however, I want to move on to the second question, which has to do with the nature of evangelism itself. Put simply, does God want us to attempt to proselytize people, to convert them into believers in Jesus Christ?

It would appear so from the closing words of the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus tells his disciples, “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (28:19-20).

This was obviously the impetus behind Chau’s evangelism efforts. He was trained and sent by an organization called All Nations, based in Kansas City, Missouri. According to their website, their vision is “to see Jesus worshiped by all the peoples of the earth,” and their mission is “to make disciples and train leaders to ignite church planting movements among the neglected peoples of the earth.”

Why is this the vision of All Nations? What drives them to make this their particular mission? According to their Statement of Faith, “We believe that when a follower of Jesus dies, he/she passes immediately into the presence of Christ, there to enjoy conscious fellowship with God until the day of the resurrection and transformation of the body. The saved will then forever dwell in fellowship with their great God. We also believe that when the unbeliever dies he/she is consigned to hell, there to await the day of judgment when he/she shall be punished with eternal, conscious separation from the presence of God.”

In this way of thinking, missionaries have the ultimate task of saving people from hell — literally! That’s why Chau felt driven to risk his life on a far off island. That’s why he believed his act of self-sacrifice might ultimately be worth it. If the North Sentinelese are eventually introduced to Jesus someday, they might be saved to go to heaven. That’s a bargain Chau would accept, because he knew he would be in heaven himself.

This logic is flawed to me, to be honest. I simply don’t believe that people who don’t have faith in Jesus Christ will spend the afterlife in perpetual torture, much less people who have never even heard of Jesus.

In fact, the story of Chau’s demise reminds me of a story I heard once about a missionary priest who traveled to a remote tribe in a far-off land. When he got there, he learned the language as quickly as he could, and then began teaching them the precepts of Christianity.

Finally, one of the tribesmen asked the priest, “Are you saying that we will go to hell if we don’t accept your Jesus?”

The priest said, “Yes, that is what I am saying.”

The tribesman asked, “But what if we never had heard of this Jesus? Would we still go to hell?”

The priest replied, “Well, no, not in that case. Because God would show you mercy.”

The tribesman then said, “Why did you come and preach to us then? We would all be going to heaven! Now some of us are doomed!”

Chau either believed a) that all people who don’t believe in Jesus are going to hell regardless of whether they had heard of him or not, or b) that only people who have heard about Jesus will be judged on the basis of whether they have believed in him; the rest will be judged on a different basis. If he believed option a, then I understand his urgent mission but pity his belief in an unmerciful and horrible God; if he believed in option b, then he was simply foolish — far better to leave them alone and let them go to heaven out of ignorance!

Frankly, I find both options to be equally problematic, but that’s a subject for a different column.

For now, let me simply close with this thought: the Gospel of Jesus Christ is meant to be good news to people, a liberating word, a fresh and transformative thing. Jesus himself once said, “I have come that you may have life and have it more abundantly.”

Anything that doesn’t bring abundant life is not from God. Even if it comes from a so-called missionary.

The Religious Preferences of Our Parish

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I’m still combing through the results of the demographic study provided by MissionInsite for United Methodist churches in the North Texas Conference.

Last week, I wrote about some of the stark numbers and facts about the people living around us. But this week, I would like to muse on what the study discovered about our neighbors’ thoughts about religion and church. (Remember, the study looked at the people who live within a 1.5 mile radius of our church.)

Regarding involvement in church, the percentage of people who consider themselves part of a faith community stands at 35.3%, which is higher than I expected. However, that number has dropped over 12 percentage points in the last ten years. That means over 47% of the population were involved in a church in 2007. That’s a huge drop in a short amount of time.

The only two categories of faith community which have grown considerably in those ten years are the “Nones,” or those who say they have no affiliation with any faith community, who make up 27.3% of the population, and those in non-denominational or independent churches, which make up 6.6%. The biggest declines were amassed by the Catholics, who are still the largest single denomination in our area, and the Baptists, the second largest. We United Methodists mostly held our own during this time, declining by only .6% in that time period.

When people who are not part of any church are asked why they don’t participate, here are their top five reasons:
    1. Religious people are too judgmental
    2. Don’t trust organized religion
    3. Religion too focused on money
    4. Disillusionment with religion
    5. Don’t trust religious leaders

Let’s stop right there and think about the implications of these findings. This tells me that there are a lot of people out there who have been hurt by church, who have been abused, manipulated, or denigrated by people claiming to be Christians. Our neighbors have some deeply-felt pain, and much of it is our fault.

As I said several times in my sermon on Sunday, our Bible has been hijacked. It has become a weapon in the hands of some, and the consequences are that some people have been beaten up, wounded, and bruised.

This should be a wake-up call for us. Fifty years ago, the culture around us was sympathetic to the church. Pastors were seen as civic leaders; Sunday mornings were sacred time, as well as Wednesday evenings; and people kept up a veneer of religiosity in the community. But that’s not the way it is anymore.

The study recommended, in a context such as ours, the following top five ministry or program preferences:
    1. Warm and friendly encounters
    2. Quality of sermons
    3. Adult social activities
    4. Opportunities for volunteering in the community
    5. Holiday programs and activities

Another interesting discovery was that traditional worship ranked #7 in this list, higher than contemporary worship, which came in at #17.

Looking carefully at this list, I believe that KPUMC is uniquely positioned to prosper in this community. Though I can’t speak to #2, I think we do quite well on these top five priorities, with the exception of #3. We still lack in the number of quality adult social activities that we offer, but I believe the Vision Task Force has given us a way to improve in this area.

Ultimately, however, the study fails to identify what is most important about a church, and what a church represents. One of the categories ranked “Life Concerns” for people in our community. Answers included such concerns as “losing weight/diet issues,” “day-to-day financial matters,” and “being successful.” Nowhere did I see the choice, “becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ.”

The one thing that KPUMC has to offer that makes us different from other organizations, non-profits, and institutions is that we help people become disciples of Jesus. We are in the business of transformation, of change, of life formation, of training in the art of becoming like Jesus.

Admittedly, not many people out there would articulate this as a life-goal. I would suggest that’s because they don’t know much about Jesus yet. They must not know about Jesus' sacrificial love, his fierce justice, his courageous opposition to the powers-that-be, his compassionate concern for the marginalized.

Let’s change that, shall we?

Lessons From the World's Worst Missionary

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    As I pointed out in the sermon on Sunday, the figure of Jonah is a caricature. He is a terrible prophet and a petulant little man. I consider him the worst missionary ever!
    That’s why he is such a helpful character to ponder as we consider how to do mission right. Starting next Wednesday night at 6:30 pm, I’ll be leading a class on missions, and attempt to lay out a full theology, strategy, and spirituality for the church as we improve the way we help and serve others.
    But first let’s see what we can learn from Jonah about how not to do missions:

  1. Jonah went alone. Missions is never a solo venture; it’s not meant for Lone Rangers. The first and most glaring problem with Jonah’s travels to Nineveh is that he didn’t take anybody with him. Therefore, there was nobody to support and encourage him, nobody to hold him accountable, nobody to talk common sense to him. When we attempt to do missions all by ourselves, no matter how noble or worthy, we are doomed to fail.
  2. Jonah didn’t learn the language. Did you notice that Jonah makes absolutely no preparation for his mission trip? He didn’t attempt to learn the language, the local culture, or anything else at all about the context to which he was traveling. I have a picture in my mind of Jonah walking through the middle of the city proclaiming, “In forty days, you will be overthrown!” in Hebrew, as people looked on with amusement since they couldn’t understand a word he was saying. The fact that the people and the king ended up being converted by this very brief sermon in a foreign language is a satirical jab at Jonah’s disinterest in actually communicating to the Ninevehites.
  3. Jonah didn’t befriend any Ninevehites. Again, the whole point of the story is that Jonah hated Nineveh. He didn’t want them to experience God’s shalom. That is most obvious by his absolute disregard of the people themselves. He didn’t take any steps to get to know them, understand them, or create friendships.
  4. Jonah viewed himself as superior to the Ninevehites. Obviously, Jonah thought his religion and culture better than Nineveh’s, and he saw himself as going to impose his worldview on that city. This is a subtle and malicious error that Christian missionaries have perpetuated throughout the centuries. Many of the 19th-century, so-called missionaries to Africa, for example, were nothing but Western colonizers, setting the stage for economic exploitation. But we make the same mistake when we view ourselves as superior to those whom we serve.
  5. Jonah was in a hurry. Note that he didn’t care to stick around the city very long. He did the absolute bare minimum of God’s command; he stuck to the letter of the law. Then he left and climbed the mountain to watch the destruction. He wanted immediate results to his missionary activity, and so often, the same is true of our own efforts. The truth about missions is that the most enduring, long-lasting, and best work is done over a long period of time. Short-term mission work is usually just that — short-term, and can be very damaging.

    Imagine how the Book of Jonah would have read if Jonah were a model character, an exemplary prophet. It would have been pretty boring! No big fish, no bean plant, no pouting prophet.
    Instead, we would read of a man who assembled a team of men and women who cared deeply about Nineveh’s history and culture, learned their language, listened to the people in the city, sipped coffee with them in their cafes, received hospitality from them, and lived with them for a long time. Perhaps eventually this team would get around to making suggestions, offering a hand, or building something. But this would only happen after a long period of listening, reflection, prayer, and study.
    Like I said, it wouldn’t be nearly as exciting as the whale story. But it would make a lasting difference toward establishing God’s kingdom.